A Common Project: Where Craft and Design Meet in a Democratic World

Part One – The March of Democracy

At the end of the eighteenth century, King George III had a lot on his plate. He particularly prized the gifts from India—certainly the precious diamonds from Bengal—which contributed to the splendour of the British crown. But it wasn’t only jewels that King George needed. The loss of the American colonies left the empire short of wood for its ships, so explorations were ordered far afield to secure new supplies. But by the time the continent of terra Australis was identified as an outpost of the British Empire, a more pressing need had emerged—the disposal of the growing criminal class. So Australia’s birth as a British colony began at the opposite end of the imperial spectrum to India—from the jewel in the crown to the bottom of the pile. Hopefully, we’ve come a little closer over the past two hundred years.

My purpose in setting this scene is not to reflect on alternate national trajectories, but to place what we know today as contemporary jewellery into an historical perspective. In its time, royal jewellery constituted a symbol of national identity, even if it was the wealth of the few. It fostered innovation in the jewellery craft and produced works that stood alone as rare works of art.

Clearly, there have been radical changes between the time of the royal court and today. It hardly needs saying in this, the world’s largest democracy, that people power has provided a driving force in modern history. We only need to look today at what’s happening Egypt to realise that the force of democracy in history is far from over.

Democracy is more than the formal procedure of marking a piece of paper every few years. It is also something we try to realise in our everyday lives. The imperial framework still reaches deep into our way of thinking, such as the celebrity cults in popular culture. There is still work to be done in liberating ourselves from the feudal thinking.

But there are dangers. One image evoked by democracy is that of an unruly mob storming the royal palace, looting and destroying national treasures. Democracy can be a destructive force. One of the challenges of art in our age is to realise a creative dimension to democracy, to create new values.

We see this in contemporary art—dramatically in the work of the British artist Anthony Gormley. Asian Field was produced by 347 inhabitants of the Chinese city of Xiangshan, aged between 7 and 70 years. Their brief was to produce clay figures that were the palm-sized, could stand upright, and have two holes for eyes. Gormley had planned to include 100,000 figures, but total ended up being 192,000, made over a five day period. While the kudos does still return to Gormley as the head artist, Asian Field does help us envisage what democracy might look like if it reached the world’s most populous nation, China. This work reflects the force of the democratic ideal in contemporary art through both its subject matter and process of production.

Does jewellery have a role to play in this? Given its natural association with prestige, one might think that it has little part to play in growing egalitarianism. But it is its very elitism that provides people power with a creative challenge.

Part Two – The Contemporary Jewellery Movement

Contemporary jewellery is defined by its small but significant role in democratic thinking. In post-war Europe, contemporary jewellery adopted a critical position to preciousness. In particular, it confronted the modern tendency to reduce ornament , along with most other cultural practices, to its economic value. The exclusive emphasis on precious metals and rare stones was seen to transform jewellery into a form of hard currency. Why bother being creative with jewellery when it is nothing more than a bank account?

At first, this involved the replacement of gold and silver with much cheaper materials, such as the use of nylon thread in the work of English jeweller Caroline Broadhead. Here the value of the work could not be reduced to its materials, but lay clearly in the original vision and innovative techniques of its creator. From this developed a movement that took contemporary jewellery into new experimental domains. With the introduction of new materials, contemporary jewellery engaged in a more conceptual exploration of jewellery beyond the everyday use of personal ornament. In the early 1980s, Caroline Broadhead extended her use of nylon into neckpieces the enveloped the entire head in a way that could only be viewed within an artistic context. At an even further extreme, Peter Degan would envelop the entire body in a jewellery contraption purely as a form of artistic performance. To a degree, the English approach to the critique of preciousness can be seen as enabling an empirical approach to jewellery—viewing it in terms of the experience of the body rather than an object in itself.

My core thesis today is that while the project of contemporary jewellery brings artists together on a shared democratic platform, the critique of preciousness does allow for a broad variety of individual expression. While the gold standard is the same for all, our own commonness is unique. Thus the critique of preciousness in jewellery has taken different forms in other cultures.

The contemporary jewellery movement began in Australia with the migration of European gold and silversmiths from northern Europe after the Second World War. They arrived at a time when our tertiary education sector was expanding rapidly, providing opportunities to pass on their skills to a new generation of students. In Australia, our critique of preciousness focused particularly on recovering value from what gets left behind. We see this in one of our most innovative jewellers, Roseanne Bartley, who attempts to make elegant necklaces from materials such as ice cream sticks that are left on the street. The Queensland jeweller Mark Verwerk has developed the remarkable technique of spinning plastic bags to create material for rings. And in Welcome Signs we see the work of Katheryn Leopoldseder making a splendid necklace out of communion cups discarded after religious service.

It is perhaps not surprising, given that the nation of Australia was founded by people who were thrown out as social waste, that we attempt to find ways of making precious the common. In doing so, we provide a test of creative ability. This involves an alchemic transformation—not lead into gold, but waste into splendour. Other countries of the South explore this in their own ways. In South Africa, jewellers like Beverley Price also use recycled materials, though this is less a modernist exercise and more a celebration of popular culture than in Australia.

In New Zealand, contemporary jewellery challenged the kitsch associations of materials like paua shell. Jewellers such as Alan Preston employed paua in the design of serious modernist works. This use of local indigenous materials was officially recognised in the 1988 exhibition Stone, Bone and Shell.

Across the Pacific in Chile, the other tourist craft of crin (weaving with horsehair) has recently become a focus of work by the emerging scene of contemporary jewellers, such as the work by WALKA studio, including Claudia Betancourt and Ricardo Pulgar.

So you could say that the critique of preciousness is a global project. While there is the universal gold standard of value that all countries share, now there is a shared project where each culture can contribute its own national commonness to the celebration of preciousness.

Part Three – A new horizon – ‘power’ jewellery

But there are other ways in which this movement operates to bring us together. Jewellery has a very important non-commercial function in making important social rituals. The Welcome Signs exhibition brings jewellers together from across the Asia Pacific in celebration of the shared heritage of the garland, or malaa, by which hospitality is marked. So we have the silver wreath by Marian Hosking, one of two Australian ‘living treasures’ in the exhibition, which reflects the subtle and dry floral forms that bedeck the Australian bush, by contrast by the bright lush flora of tropical southern climes. We see now a new contemporary jewellery scene emerging from countries such as Indonesia and Thailand, exploring connections with social networks.

Another project with a similar premise is Southern Charms, which will open in Melbourne early next year and brings together jewellers from Australasia and Latin America. Here we look to the traditional associations of jewellery with luck, to explore how new forms of charms can be designed to reflect the challenges we face now, such as climate change. While there are traditions such as the charm bracelet, contemporary jewellers like Warwick Freeman have been designing new symbolic jewels, such as his Earth Ring. By liberating ourselves from the gold standard of preciousness we can return to the power of jewellery to affect the shape of our lives.

Part Four – A new horizon – ‘ethical’ jewellery

The final horizon can be found behind the scenes in jewellery. This pertains to democracy not just in the symbolic elevation of common materials, but also in the social relations by which jewellery is produced. One hierarchy that persists in our work is between the idea and its realisation. In the case of crafts, this often pans out in the greater value given to design rather than its production, particularly when using craft skills.

At this point, we can recall the oft-quoted words of Indira Gandhi: ‘My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition. ‘

We see the new relevance of production in the work of German jeweller Martina Dempf, who worked with basketmakers in Rwanda to develop a form of jewellery that would provide a sustainable basis for their craft skills. She continues to source woven grass components from the Rwandan women for her silver jewellery, but they in the meantime have set up their own enterprise selling grass jewellery.

Jewellery plays an increasingly important role in world craft upliftment, enabling languishing crafts like basketmaking to take on a new life. In the case of Martina Dempf, her work has two sources of value. In one, the work stands on its own in beauty and craftsmanship. But in the other, it also has an ethical value in the impact this jewellery has on the world. We see increasingly now in jewellery, as in other forms of consumption, a growing value that is accorded to the way objects are produced. This is especially so in jewellery, which is something we like to wear with pride. This can be compromised when the brilliant diamond we display become associated with a bloody civil war in Africa.

For the last two years, the Two Hands Project has been exploring the logic of this craft-design hierarchy, and to consider alternatives, such as the film industry where the relation between director and actor is more even. This tag cloud, or mandala, has been developed to allow meditation on this relation, and see it in other ways.

More practically, the Code of Practice for Creative Collaborations, endorsed by UNESCO and the World Craft Council in Hangzhou, begins now to gather perspectives from all participants. This is being administered by the recently established New Traditions Foundation in conjunction with the Ethical Design Laboratory, especially created for this purpose at RMIT University Centre for Design.

The first step naturally begins here, in India, where there is not only the greatest concentration of craft but also such considerable thought reaching back to Gandhi about the continuing relevance of the handmade in our modern world. We are pleased to work with local partners such as the Craft Revival Trust on a seminar workshop this October to gather thinking on this matter.


Jewellery does not command the same profile in our museums as other art forms, like painting or sculpture. But nor do those art forms have nearly the same penetration into our everyday life as the objects we use to adorn our bodies. In this way, jewellery has great potential to affect our relations with each other. We have seen how the splendours of royal jewellery help consolidate the power of the monarch. Our challenge in a period of growing democracy is to work out how we now mark our relations with each other. Do we all try to be kings and queens, wearing diamonds and pearls?

We must admit that this aspiration is still the dominant paradigm for jewellery in our democracies. It certainly is the economic logic that drives our industry. But this is where the contemporary jewellery movement can provide an alternative perspective. Rather than each of us trying to elevate ourselves above others, we can use jewellery as a means of upliftment for all. This is a key message in an age of global warming, where the individual quest for consumer goods has led to the depletion of our common environment.

Materials that are devalued for their very commonness, seen as ubiquitous rubbish or tourist kitsch, can be elevated through jewellery as proud symbols of our cultural identity. It’s doubtful whether this form of contemporary jewellery will ever displace the mainstream global economy of precious gems and metals, but creative jewellers play an important role in keeping this idea alive.

And at this moment, the eyes of the contemporary jewellery movement look to India. What will India’s contribution to the project of non-preciousness be? We are certainly familiar with the splendour of jewellery from the Moghuls, but what does Indian jewellery have to say about its current and future identity? How can this reflect the wealth of skill amongst its artisan population and the energy emerging from the new generation of designers? India has the potential to re-vitalise a movement that has largely played its course in other countries.

Contemporary jewellers help us sustain the dream of a common wealth—not in the rare treasures of the few, but in the precious wealth of the common.

This paper was presented at the Abhushan Jewellery Summit, 6 February 2011, organised by the World Craft Council. The writing of this paper is supported by the Australia Council of the Arts, as part of a New Work grant of the Visual Arts Board.

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